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Daily News (New York) March 25, 2003

Saddam's Little Helpers

Ragtag militia pesters allies

By Greg Gittrich

A fierce militia of street thugs and pardoned criminals loyal to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein is mounting a surprisingly stiff resistance to U.S.-led troops advancing toward Baghdad.

Saddam's Fedayeen - whose name means "those ready to sacrifice themselves for Saddam" - have been sent south to confuse and kill coalition forces, and also prevent regular Iraqi soldiers from surrendering.

Unlike most militias that distinguish themselves by beating up unarmed civilians, the Fedayeen have surprised the allies by not disintegrating in the face of disciplined and well-armed troops.

The Fedayeen are responsible for organizing several deadly battlefield tricks, like posing as civilians and faking surrenders to trap coalition forces.

The guerrilla tactics near Nassiriya and Umm Qasr led to the first major allied casualties.

The strategy also exposed a potential weakness in the U.S. military operation: As coalition troops race through the harsh desert toward Baghdad, they are stretching their supply lines, making it difficult to protect against random attacks.

"The Fedayeen are doing a rather effective job of harassing the U.S. military, especially the Marines," said Patrick Garrett, a senior fellow at Global Security, a military strategy think tank.

The ruthless militia was formed in 1994 to crack down on dissidents, especially in the oppressed Shiite Muslim areas in central and southern Iraq. Fearsome force Prewar U.S. intelligence estimates put the Fedayeen's strength at between 20,000 and 25,000 fighters. But some military experts say the force numbers about 60,000.

Its members report directly to Saddam's eldest son, Uday, and often dress in black uniforms and shroud their faces with black scarves to instill fear.

They also have been known to eat only snakes and dog meat as part of a sick endurance drill.

The first recruits included criminals who were pardoned in exchange for serving in the militia.

"They are poorly armed, they are poorly trained and in many cases they are truly the dregs of Iraqi society," said Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst at the Brookings Institution.

Pollack said the militia is notorious for beheading women in the street whom they suspect of being prostitutes.

Intelligence officials believe the Fedayeen were dispatched from strongholds near Baghdad over the last few weeks.

Earlier this month, U.S. officials claimed the militia was acquiring uniforms "identical down to the last detail" to those worn by American and British forces and planned to use them to shift blame for atrocities 'A little nuisance' Still, Middle East military analysts say the force is too poorly equipped to match the U.S.

"They are a little nuisance that can make some trouble, but not hinder the advance of the troops," said Mohammed Qadri Saeed, a military analyst at the Cairo-based Al Ahram Center for Strategic Studies.

Gen. Tommy Franks said yesterday the Fedayeen had been harassing U.S. forces in southern Iraq.

"We know that the Fedayeen has in fact put himself in a position to mill about, to create difficulties in rural areas," he said. "I can assure you that contact with those forces is not unexpected."

Copyright 2003, Daily News, L.P.